Moving Deeper into the Standards: The Demand for Paired Texts

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Pairing texts should be done with the same consideration one pairs food and drink: they complement one another. Through the union of the two, each one becomes richer on its own.

Pairing texts should be done with the same consideration one pairs food and drink: they complement one another. Through the union of the two, each one becomes richer on its own.

I posted my first blog on Common Core State Standards on July 7, 2011 (Who Wrote the Common Core State Standards). I had just returned from an annual leadership seminar hosted by Consortium on Reading Educational Excellence (CORE) in San Francisco where we were introduced to David Coleman. During our time with Coleman, he modeled how he would teach King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and flippantly quipped about the need for students to realize that “nobody really gives a shit how they feel”–his now infamous trademark quotation. Back then, my blogs didn’t seem to get the traffic they do today. In 2010 and 2011, most people didn’t know what the CCSS were much less care what I had to say about them.

That is with the exception of Sara Holbrook, who I first mentioned in my blog in 2008 (NCTE San Antonio: Shift Happens) when I attended one of her workshops while attending the National Council of Teachers annual convention. In September of 2011, she contacted me after reading my blog post, Critical Thinking, Political Demands, and the Common Core. In that post, I referenced the CCSS’s inclusion of William Blake (typically taught in high school Brit Lit) as a reading for 4th and 5th graders. I love Blake and I think there are a few Blake poems that could be worthy for teaching at an elementary or middle school level; perhaps “A Poison Tree” would be effective as text for close reading in a unit about bullying. However, Blake’s “The Echoing Green” a poem that references children but concludes on a metaphorically darker note does not seem to me to be developmentally appropriate for elementary children.

Appendix B cites the Blake poem as well as Sandburg’s “Fog” among poems listed within the 4-5 grade band listing and within the listing of associated Performance Tasks (this one for RL.5.4) asks that students “determine the meaning” of the cat metaphor in and then “contrast that figurative language to the meaning of the simile” in Blake’s “Echoing Green”RL.5.4. (Appendix B, p. 70). As a performance task for RL.5.4, paired texts are not required: Determine the meaning of words and phrases…including figurative language such as metaphors and similes” (CCSS, p.12). However, I have no argument with pairing here, just saying the standard does not require pairing although six other standards at 5th grade do require paired texts: RL.7, 9; RI.5, 6, 7, 9. In looking across the grade level standards, all require multiple opportunities for students to read and analyze paired texts, from four standards in the third grade to nine standards in grades 8-10.

My issue with this performance task is not actually based on the essential task or even the pairing in general; fourth and fifth graders should be able to identify and discuss figures of speech such as simile and metaphor in a poem or other text. My issue is associated with the appropriateness of this particular Blake poem and the worthiness of the task. Simply analyzing Sandburg’s well-known six-line extended metaphor comparing two elements of nature (fog and cat) would meet the standard’s expectation. On the other hand, contrasting it against a three-line simile that appears near the end of a thirty-line poem (the focus of the performance task) is not the goal of this standard. Moreover, to really understand the simile, one must first understand the figures of speech within the opening verse lines. The birds are  personified as singing with joy and later, through the simile will be likened to the children–tired and sleeping in the nest. To ask a fifth grader to do what I just did is…well…let me say, probably beyond even many of my readers here. No offense.

Getting to the Suggested Pairing: Kipling & Holbrook

Campbells Chicken Vegetable Soup, 10.75 oz-250x250Okay so rather than rant on any further (this is a blog, so I guess I can rant), I suggest a different pairing that is attainable to both 4th and 5th graders as well as their teachers. Moreover, this pairing and the associated performance task meets the first of seven types of Common Core pairing types: Standards Whose Primary Focus is Comparison of Literary Elements. The two poems I suggest pairing are Rudyard Kipling’s “We and They” and Sarah Holbrook’s “Labels” (Sarah Holbrook’s poem was used with the author’s permission). Pairing these poems, I suggest, not only allows the opportunities to teach the 5th grade standard figures of speech (see above), but also allows a students to look closely at text structure: Explain major differences between poems and refer to the structural elements (e.g. verse, rhyme, & meter) when writing or speaking about a textRL.4.5. and Explain how…stanzas fit together to provide overall structure….RL5.5. These standards can be met by examining the poems independently while the Standard 9 at each grade can be met by “Compar[ing] and contrast[ing] the point of view; Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the textRL.4.1.

I suggest teachers begin with Holbrook’s “Labels.” It is shorter than the Kipling poem, contemporary and therefore more familiar, and it offers figures of speech to introduce. I always number poems or short pieces of text to make them easier to talk about later. If the numbers get in the way of the first reading, have the students number the lines after they have read. Now, read the poem as fourth grader or a fifth grader; circle any new words as you read. When you actually teach poetry reading, you decide whether you read the poem first-time through or whether you have the students read the first time through and then you follow-up with reading aloud. Regardless, the poem needs to be read several times: aloud by the teacher, independently to the self, aloud by the students to one another.


  1. People get tagged with these labels,
  2. like African-American,
  3. Native-American,
  4. White.
  5. Asian, Hispanic,
  6. or Euro-Caucasian —
  7. I just ask that you get my name right.
  8. I’m part Willie,
  9. part Ethel,
  10. part Suzi and Scott.
  11. Part assembly-line worker,
  12. part barber, a lot of dancer
  13. and salesman. Part grocer and mailman.
  14. Part rural, part city, part cook
  15. and part caveman.
  16. I’m a chunk-style vegetable soup
  17. of cultural little bits,
  18. my recipe’s unique
  19. and no one label fits.
  20. Grouping folks together
  21. is an individual waste.
  22. You can’t know me by just a look,
  23. you have to take a taste.

Once the students have read the poem to themselves, read the poem aloud…don’t stop. Give them the whole poem read fluently and with expression. That’s how poems are intended to be read. Then…ask your kids what words they didn’t know. List them on the board. No word is too small or too easy to be on the list. And now, talk about those words. You are working on Standard 4 at every grade. Have them talk in small groups about what the word means as it is “used in the text.” I can imagine these words being on the list: tagged, labels, Euro-Caucasion, assembly-line, grocer, rural, caveman, cultural, unique, individual. You may want to group your students and assign a word or two words to each group; ask them to write a friendly definition and be able to support their definition with text information and their own logical and academic knowledge. Once you are through defining the words, have the students write their definitions directly on the paper and then reread the poem. Have them read it to one another in pair reading.

Now, start to talk about the poem. In poetry, every line is a verse and verse lines work independently and together to convey a complete thought (like a sentence). I teach my students to look at verse lines and identify complete thoughts—like sentences–especially in a poem like this that doesn’t have individual stanzas. For instance, verse lines 1-6 form a complete thought. I see that the poet put a period after “White” and I can examine that later, but for now, what sounds like a complete thought or a sentence? What about each of thought makes one set of lines them different from another set of lines? Lines 1-6 (about nationalities); line 7 (about people’s names); line 8-10 (about?); line 11-15 (about ?); lines 16-17(about ?); lines 18-19 (about ?); lines 20-21 (about ?); lines 22-23 (about ?). You can get your students started and then ask them to pair up… what they come up with, but always remember, they have to have a text based reasons for the sentence divisions they choose. This part of the lesson is worthy of discussion; it is by understanding what the poet’s words mean that readers come to understand what the message is all about.

Now I would turn to rhyme scheme. The standards reference rhyme in grade 2, but never actually reference rhyme scheme. However, the moment the standards reference stanzas taught in grade RL.3.5 and verseRL.4.5 knowledge of rhyme scheme is implied. This poem is primarily free verse. You will notice there are some rhymes and those rhymes appear to connect two separate “sentence structures.” “Why,” you might ask students, “does the poet use rhyme to connect the thoughts?” If we can’t answer that question now, post it on the board, because after you move through the next section, this will be important.

Now to teach figures of speech! Ask the students to read line 16 through 19. Ask them what does the speaker say s/he is? But is the speaker a carrot or a green bean? No, of course not. How do we know that? Now you are asking the students to go back into the text to prove to you that we know the speaker is a person, not because the text is a poem, but because the speaker used human races and human names and human jobs to label him or herself earlier. A metaphor is a figure of speech that an author uses when comparing two very different things by saying or implying something is something else: like vegetable soup and a person’s background. Now you’ve explained the metaphor of vegetable soup, as students to explain the metaphor of the recipe. According to this poem, what is a person’s recipe? IF they are stumped, direct them to the previous lines. How can someone be part Willie and Ethel? Part Suzi and Scott? Yes, your students can solve the puzzle of the metaphor, the puzzle of the poem’s theme.

At this point, you may want to have your students work in pairs or groups of three to come up with a one sentence statement of theme for this poem. RL.4.2 & RL.5.2 If you’re group struggles to accomplish this task, then you tell them the theme of the poem but have them find the evidence to prove you right.

Shifting to Kipling’s “We and They”

Now we move to the companion poem by Rudyard Kipling, “We and They.” Before reading this poem, you may want to background your students by sharing Jungle Book stories through a read aloud. Regardless, when you get to analyzing the poem, use the same reading process as practiced before: ask students to read silently, mark new words. Teacher reads the text aloud and guided by the students responses, generates a vocabulary list. Then, allow time for students to work in small groups and find textual support that assists in their own determination of word meaning. IF there is no textual support (the word is without context) just tell them what the word means. Don’t linger over it.

We and They

  1. Father and Mother, and Me, (a)
  2. Sister and Auntie say (b)
  3. All the people like us are We, (a)
  4. And every one else is They. (b)
  5. And They live over the sea, (a)
  6. While We live over the way, (b)
  7. But-would you believe it? –They look upon We (a)
  8. As only a sort of They! (b)
  1. We eat pork and beef
  2. With cow-horn-handled knives.
  3. They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
  4. Are horrified out of Their lives;
  5. While they who live up a tree,
  6. And feast on grubs and clay,
  7. (Isn’t it scandalous? ) look upon We
  8. As a simply disgusting They!
  1. We shoot birds with a gun.
  2. They stick lions with spears.
  3. Their full-dress is un-.
  4. We dress up to Our ears.
  5. They like Their friends for tea.
  6. We like Our friends to stay;
  7. And, after all that, They look upon We
  8. As an utterly ignorant They!
  1. We eat kitcheny food.
  2. We have doors that latch.
  3. They drink milk or blood,
  4. Under an open thatch.
  5. We have Doctors to fee.
  6. They have Wizards to pay.
  7. And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
  8. As a quite impossible They!
  1. All good people agree,
  2. And all good people say,
  3. All nice people, like Us, are We
  4. And every one else is They:
  5. But if you cross over the sea,
  6. Instead of over the way,
  7. You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
  8. As only a sort of They!

This poem depends heavily poetic structures, a great opportunity to introduce the poetic stanza. In this poem, there are four. Each stanza has “how many lines?” Students can clearly hear the rhyme between lines and within the poem, so next begin here by modeling how to “see” the rhyme pattern. At the end of each line, simply place a letter beginning with “a” to note the sound. When sounds rhyme, use the same letter again. I’ve done it for you above. This is an easy task and some of your students will enjoy it and find success. Moreover, it is important to the poem. Once students have identified the rhyming pattern, ask them to notice the repetition of “We” and “They at the end of each stanza. And you may point out here that when authors repeat themselves, they are trying to get the reader’s attention, a point that may be helpful in the following step.

The next step would be to pair verse lines for complete ideas. I would pair verse lines 1-4, lines 5 -6, and lines 7-8. Then I would model how to paraphrase these sets of lines. Although paraphrase is never specifically referenced within the reading standards, it is specifically noted as a fourth grade speaking standard and from fifth grade forward, referenced in the writing standards. This would be done using a think aloud. As you paraphrase, you specifically note the lines and explain why you choose your words. Line 1-4: My family (mom & dad & aunt) says that “we” means people who are like us and “they” are everyone else. Lines 5-6: “They” live far away across the ocean (sea) but “We” live here across the land (way). Lines 7-8: “They” think that we are like them a little bit, but not completely.

This is a great poem to use Fisher and Frey’s gradual release: Teacher models paraphrasing the first verse; teacher works with the class to paraphrase the second verse; students work in small groups to paraphrase the third and fourth verse (then review as a whole class); then ask students to paraphrase the fifth and final stanza independently (or you may do small groups for the third and fourth verse, pairs for the fourth and fifth). Be sure to have students notice the subtle changes in the final two lines of each stanza as they move through the poem.

Eventually you will need to lead a discussion of figures of speech. If you had taught simile prior to teaching either of these paired poems, a good question regarding figures of speech could examine the use of the word “like” as it is used in each of these poems. Both poems use the word (“Labels” line2; “We and They” line 3), but neither is figurative use; rather both use “like” as a term of literal comparison (practice with comparison begins in Kindergarten and thereafter is consistently referenced throughout the grades). Although the Holbrook poem makes use of metaphor, the Kipling poem does not (at least not at a fifth grade level). This absence of figures of speech may give students a significant area to explore when comparing and contrasting the two poems as a summative performance task.

The final stages of text pairing comes in preparing readers to do the complex thinking that constitutes the requirements of standard #9: Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes…in traditional literature from different culturesRL.4.9. The standards from the substrand “Key Ideas and Details” clearly state that students (fourth and fifth graders) can determine a theme within a poem; standard nine asks that students compare and contrast how that theme is conveyed. Through instruction of this suggested multi-day lesson, readers will have looked at figures of speech and literal language, poetic structures, and paraphrasing of poetic text. What might the performance task to this type of work look like or sound like?

If I go back to what started me on this instructional journey, the contrasting of literary elements between two unrelated poems as stated in Appendix B page 70. What I am suggesting is introducing poems with contemporary themes that are developmentally appropriate and engaging. I would also shift the direction of the performance task by  drawing on instruction (but not providing the answer in class) and asking students to explain how Holbrook’s metaphor of labels can be seen in Kipling’s “We and They.” This would require close analysis and still demand that students stay within the four corners of the text. I’m not suggesting these two poems be read independently and assessed by that question (at least not now!). I know that in order to scaffold fourth or fifth graders to such a level they could read and respond independently to my suggest performance task will take time and practice. And I know that such a suggested performance task has greater real-literary merit than the current Performance Task that bears the Seal of CCSS Approval.

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